Maintenance: When to Stop Trying to Train

by Mark Rippetoe | April 07, 2021

rip coaches a lifter on his deadlift

There may be 8 or 10 of us who have been training as long as I have. I started when I was 18, and I just turned 65. Most of that time under the bar has been spent trying to get stronger than I am now – whenever “now” happened to be. The past 30 years have been a series of periods of progress punctuated by injuries that forced a reset or rehab. The net effect has been that my strength peaked in the 1980s and has been in a gradual decline since then.

Nonetheless, each reset involved training: the application of progressively loaded work in a manner reflective of the methods I used prior to my peak in my competitive years, using the principle of stress/recovery/adaptation. I have found that this no longer works in a way that yields the results it once did, and that stubbornly refusing to change my approach has gotten me injured. Since I am post-competitive, I have decided to become post-training too – I am doing maintenance work now. It's actually exercising instead of training, but in my situation it's necessary. It's probably not necessary for you.

Please understand: this advice is for old people who keep hurting themselves when they push into PR territory – not novice and intermediate trainees, or even advanced trainees who are still making good progress with programming at the appropriate level. A change to maintenance is not for people who have not trained for PRs, and therefore have no problems with injuries while doing so. It is not for people who have unrealized potential, but who merely happen to be lazy enough that they don't push for PRs.

There are two types of “PRs,” lifetime PRs like I hit back in the 1980s, and “local PRs” that represent, for example, the most I've squatted in the past 5 years. When hitting even local PRs hurts you, it's time to take another approach.

Under normal circumstances, this shift from training to maintenance is related to age, and injuries. Age is what causes injuries to accumulate, and they are the price you pay for having not died. Injuries happen as a normal consequence of life, and they even happen in the weight room – sometimes. You're far more likely to get seriously injured outside the weight room than under the bar. And once you're injured badly enough that surgery or a long layoff is necessary, things are different.

Bad injuries happen during car wrecks, falling off of ladders, industrial disasters, bar fights, war, hurricanes, tornadoes, spacecraft collisions, and any number of other bad things. They heal to about 75% of normal capacity in 2-4 months, depending on the injury, but can take 2-3 years to heal as completely as they're going to. Or you could get deathly ill with an actual disease like spinal meningitis or bone cancer or multiple sclerosis, and be forced into a layoff that lasts long enough to detrain you. Depending on how old you are at the time, your training may never recover completely. This, in addition to normal age-related sarcopenia, is the mechanism by which your strength diminishes over time.

Injuries must be trained through, because even young people with most of their potential left will get injured. I hate it worse than you do, but I promise you that everyone gets injured from time to time, and if you can't figure out how to train through an injury, you can't train for strength. So that's not what I'm talking about either. I mean that once you have tried every permutation of intermediate/advanced programming, done multiple resets to try to run back up onto your previous numbers, done all the dietary and rest manipulations possible, and you are still injured frequently or stuck because you're injured frequently, then it's time to shift to maintenance.

This is the time to think about using ancillary and assistance exercises in place of the formerly preferable basic barbell exercises. Probably the first thing to stop trying to train is the full deadlift; the damn things are too hard to recover from. In their place would be rack pulls and halting deadlifts for the heavy days, and barbell rows for light days. Squats can be alternated with box squats, either every other workout or every few months – full-pause box squats are hard but lighter, so they work well if you're doing maintenance. Benches and presses are still useful in maintenance, pretty much as they were previously. You can tolerate more sets and reps with them, but pay attention to your recovery, and to your shoulders. Pin presses and benches can be an option if they help you work around an injury. Same for chins, just be careful with a lot of reps – weighted 3s or 5s may work.

This can involve doing the same numbers each week, hitting the same numbers every 3-4 weeks, or rotating exercises at the same numbers. For example, I alternate squats and pulls every Monday: squat 305x5 one week, rack pull 405x3 next week, repeat as possible. Yes, one work set, a triple. Or I might squat 275x3, 295x3, 315x3, rack pull 405x5, 425x3, 425x 2 over a 6-week cycle. Or I might go to paused box squats and halting deadlifts with a similar approach every 6 months, just for a different stress on the knees and back. The idea is to hold on to your strength level by handling the heaviest weights you can recover from for as long as possible using limited sets and reps, but not pushing to the point of form breakdown or injury.

Again, I don't do sets across unless it's upper body. Presses, benches, and chins can still be trained at higher volumes than squats and pulls since they're just not as stressful. If you can still recover from high-rep sets or sets across on squats and pulls, you're not really ready for maintenance training.

The only thing I'll do for 10s is barbell rows, and I'll alternate between 5 and 10 reps every couple of weeks. They have a short range of motion, and they can't be performed correctly with limit weights, so they behave just like an assistance exercise should. Younger lifters who can do better-quality work need to do so, but for us old guys they work just fine as a light-day pull – especially when power cleans become a bad idea.

Be careful about adding a bunch of junk to the workouts. We don't become interested in muscle groups instead of movement patterns at this point, because we're still interested in strength. Sets-across dumbbell curls, dumbbell presses, front raises, leg extensions, pec-decks, and all the low-quality assistance shit you've been avoiding all these years does not suddenly become productive in a maintenance program. It's all tonnage that has to be recovered from, and it is no more useful now than it was when you were trying to train.

The thing to keep in mind is recovery: your ability to recover diminishes with age, and if you can't get recovered, the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle no longer functions, and you can't train. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) helps with this, but a 65-year-old guy on test is not suddenly young again, so don't act like you are. You will find that you can lift relatively heavy weights and maintain your strength by reducing sets, reps, and frequency, and by reining in your old habit of pushing for new PRs, thus stretching out your ability to actually exercise productively until the whole thing wraps up.

Another thing to keep in mind is the absolute fact that the processes that made the maintenance approach necessary are still in operation even as you maintain: you are still going to get injured, sick, and older, and these will continue to pull your numbers down like they did before. There's nothing you can do about that, except to fight like hell to stay as strong as you can without being stupid about it. And this ought to motivate you younger guys to keep training to get stronger as long as you can – the stronger you are when maintenance becomes necessary, the stronger you'll stay.

One of the hardest things for old lifters to face is the fact that we can't do the work or lift the weights we got strong by doing when we were younger. But if you don't accept the reality of the situation, you won't be able to enjoy your time in the gym. Quitting is not an option, training may not be an option, so learn to hang on to as much of what you worked for as possible.

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